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US First Lady Visits Afghanistan To Promote Aid Need

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush has made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to raise awareness of the country's need for development aid before an international donors conference this week in Paris. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports on the trip from Islamabad.

Mrs. Bush's day-long visit was her third to Afghanistan, where she has long championed women's rights and education initiatives. Speaking to reporters while flying to Kabul, the first lady said she hoped her visit would bring awareness to the country's continuing need for international assistance.

"I hope that what we will be able to see today will encourage all of us so that when I go to the donors conference later this week in Paris I can make the case that we need to stay - the whole international community needs to stay with Afghanistan," she said.

From Kabul, Mrs. Bush flew to Bamiyan province to see where two enormous sandstone Buddhas, carved out of a sheer cliff, stood for centuries until they were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. She also met with a group of female police cadets and Bamiyan's governor, Habiba Sorabi, Afghanistan's first female governor.

Mrs. Bush later announced two American aid initiatives for Afghanistan, a $40 million grant over five years for the American University in Kabul and a five-year $40 million package for a national literacy center that mainly teaches adults.

Afghanistan's leaders have high hopes for Thursday's international donor conference in Paris, where officials have said they hope to raise about $50 billion in reconstruction funds.

But there are widespread concerns among donors about the Afghan government's ability to responsibly manage those donations.

During a news conference with Mrs. Bush, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was asked to address donor concerns about official corruption and financial mismanagement.

"The issue of corruption in the Afghan administration, the issue of corruption with regards to the delivery of aid and all of that is something that we constantly discuss with each other, Paris will be one of the true evaluations in a very friendly manner and of contributions on both sides," said Karzai.

Afghan officials say the bulk of the new donations should be spent on improving infrastructure and security.

Foreign aid groups in Afghanistan say international donors have pledged about $24 billion to the country since 2002, but only about $15 billion has been delivered. The aid groups say those foreign funds account for 90 percent of all public spending.